Nicholas Kraemer’s Chicago Symphony program inaugurated the holiday season with a hearty dosage of Handel, the music’s charm and high spirits seasonally appropriate. While Handel’s Messiah has become invariably associated with this time of year, the program opted for less familiar repertoire, with all but the opening and closing selections first performances for the CSO. Kraemer is a familiar face locally serving as principal guest conductor of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, and his work with the CSO is equally inspired.

Nicholas Kraemer conducts the Chicago Symphony © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Nicholas Kraemer conducts the Chicago Symphony
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The evening began ceremoniously with the first Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest.  Written for the coronation of King George II in 1727, it has been performed at every English coronation since. The CSO was augmented by the formidable chorus in a clarion performance that was regal and fit for a king indeed.

The Concerto grosso in B flat major is the only entry (no. 7) of the twelve concertos that comprise Op.6 to be scored for strings alone without soloists. As with several works on the program, Kraemer balanced conducting and continuo duties, sometimes conducting with his left hand with his right on the keyboard, other times relying on more subtle gestures for conducting as both hands were occupied. The opening movement was quite brief, no more than a stately introduction to the lively fugue that followed which featured some spirited interplay. Genuine melancholy was heard in the slow movements, soon abated by the charm of the concluding Hornpipe.

The chorus returned along with soprano Amanda Forsythe in Laudate pueri Dominum, Handel’s lavish setting of Psalm 112. The soprano line is filled with ornaments and long melismas, clearly calculated to dazzle, which Forsythe did by and large. There was particularly striking orchestration in Sit nomen Domini which brought forth the organ and oboe, the latter delivered by Michael Henoch who rose to his feet for the occasion. The chorus had their shining moment in Quis sicut Dominus, and one of the work’s most affecting passages came in Suscitans a terra when the continuo was handled by cellist John Sharp and double bassist Alexander Hanna, accompanying Forsythe in music of chamber-like intimacy.

Nicholas Kraemer and Amanda Forsythe © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Nicholas Kraemer and Amanda Forsythe
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Forsythe was the protagonist once again in the motet Silete venti, this time without the chorus. Flourishes punctuated by dotted rhythms characterized the orchestral introduction in its vivid depiction of the titular winds, only to come to a halt in the opening recitative as they were quite literally silenced. The woodwinds returned on cue at Surgent venti, Handel astute as ever at word-painting and orchestral effect. The concluding Alleluja was filled with vocal pyrotechnics, bearing its Italian influence as with the previous selection, and it was in this work Forsythe found her stride.

During the substantial stage reconfiguration required for the Music for the Royal Fireworks, Kraemer took to the microphone to share some humorous anecdotes about the work’s ill-fated première, his good-natured wit easily winning the audience’s affection. Beginning in the timpani and snare, the overture was bold and grand, brightened by ebullient brass. A series of much briefer dances filled the balance of the suite, stylishly played and presented in Kraemer’s preferred ordering. Following a sensuous “La Paix” came the second minuet, next the first, and then the second again and strengthened by the percussion. “La Réjouissance” served as its conclusion, and was just as energetic and spirited as one could ask for.

***11